Now, I hate making promises, but I said I’d post an excerpt to my manuscript and so here it is (Aside: I suppose I could have edited my last post so that my promise never existed but that’s just shady). Obviously, I’m an insecure writer and will preface this entry by saying that this is a rough, rough draft. Haters gonna hate, but please, not too much. On a more serious note, if you have any feedback at all, please shoot me a message. I’d love to hear from you. On to the excerpt!
Wesley knocked on the thin door, stepped to the knob side, waited, and wondered if cats felt this way outside a mouse hole. A wood stool scraped against a wood floor, and hurried whispers came from inside the room. Heavy boots shuffled and approached the door. What did a cat do when a dog appeared instead of mouse?
A loud and unwavering voice said, “Who is it?”
The faint glimmer of light beneath the door did little for the dark hallway. Wesley closed one eye and placed himself in front of the door and said, “Arm of the State. Cardon Twins, open up.” He returned to the side of the door.
A different voice spoke through the door, rushed and uncertain, “And how are we to know you’re an Arm? You could just be some common thug.”
Wesley grinned. “The only people suspicious of me are the ones I’m supposed to collect. Now, open the door. I’ll give you a moment to consult your twin.”
He placed his ear close to—but not over—the gap between the doorframe and the door. Two blades shivered as they left their leather sheaths. A loud gulp preceded quick breathing. A window inside shattered, followed by startled yells. Wesley hefted the short wood club in his hand, braced a foot against the wall, and yanked the door open. The flimsy door and worse lock flew off their bolts.
The room was small, and a flagging candle sat on a table by a single bed. A chair lay smashed in pieces on the floor. On the opposite side of the room, Brawtin danced. His leather boots slid amidst the shattered wood pieces. He deftly sidestepped the slashing daggers of two men in the room. He maneuvered until he was in front of Wesley, the bed between them and the Cardon Twins. Brawtin flipped the table over and onto the bed. The candle fell off, and the room went dark. Wesley opened the eye he’d shut from in the hallway and closed the other.
The Twins, in their matching skunk fur hats, attacked, only to fall over the bed frame and upturned table. Brawtin grabbed one Twin’s head and bashed it into the table. The man went limp. Ranter, the larger Twin, rose up and faced them but froze as his eyes struggled to focus. Wesley flanked left and as Ranter turned to him, Brawtin kicked the bed at Ranter’s knees. Ranter flailed back, and Wesley dashed forward and struck him upside the head. Wesley and Brawtin exchanged glances, looked at the unconscious men, and laughed silently.
Outside the inn, in the dark night with a slim moon and stars bright overhead, they loaded the unconscious Twins into the back of a prison wagon, slapped the railings, and watched as the horses drove off. They began to light their pipes.
The innkeeper ran out, wiping at his balding head with a dirty towel. “My room, have you seen the damage you’ve done to my room? A horse must have run through it the way everything was broken. I was given no word the Arms would tear apart my establishment!” He stood, panting and flustered.
“The Arms will pay you compensation, sir,” Wesley said. “The paperwork takes a while, but it goes through.” He lowered his pipe, as the innkeeper drew in a big breath. It usually happened like this.
“Compensation, compensation. I have heard of this. It is never enough,” the innkeeper said. “Other inns have had the same thing, and this compensation they get does nothing but pay for damages.”
“Maybe if you denied criminals a room at your inn, this wouldn’t be your problem. Besides, what more could the compensation possibly cover?” Wesley said. He glanced at Brawtin, who shrugged and lit his pipe. Typical Brawtin, helpful as always.
“What more? What of my guests? They flee like sheep from wolves when they hear you upstairs breaking,” and the innkeeper ground his swollen hands together, “and smashing my things! Then what? What then, Arms? I have no more guest money. It has run out my door!”
“Most sheep pens have latches,” Wesley said. “That’s the most I can offer you, sir.”
The innkeeper squinted sharply as if he were imagining Wesley without his head. He bustled off, shaking his hands in the air and cursing. The inn door slammed shut, and the sign overhead rattled.
Brawtin pointed to a cluster of stars with his pipe and released smoke from his nostrils. “You handled him a bit roughly, Wes.”
Wesley frowned as he breathed life into his pipe. “Me, the rough one? He thinks a horse destroyed his room; but let’s just chalk it up to your lousy footwork.”
“Lousy? They’re the ones who broke the stool, Wes. The window… well, that was my fault, but I wouldn’t have had to do that if you didn’t take your time getting through the door, which—need I mention—you broke. I went through the window and nearly had the both of them before you even showed up. We can bill the Twins for the stool and tack on the window while we’re running the tally.”
“If only that was how it worked.”
They sat smoking by the inn. The streets were quiet an hour before dawn, the only time Wesley considered the middle quarters of the city a nice place. Not everyone felt that way. With the flood of Ash Wars refugees into Irisoth, the middle quarters became the safest spaces in the crowded capital of Strath. The landlords had boosted their prices and rubbed their ringed fingers together. Only the wealthy lived in the middle, where guards from the city’s inner keep patrolled.
Wesley, stood, tapped the ash from his pipe against his boot heel, stowed the pipe, and breathed into his hands. “Let’s head back.”
They sat in the Arms’ mess hall eating rice and meat porridge, large bread halves and spoons in their hands. Chatter in the hall died down as boots stomped through the aisles and the clattering of armor drew stares.
A tall, stooped man, wearing a bright red smock, faded turquoise pantaloons, and a feathered cap cameto a stop at the table of Wesley and Brawtin, scroll in hand. A pair of Irisoth guards stood behind him. Brawtin covered a smirk, porridge dripping from the spoon still in his hand.
The messenger unfurled the scroll, raised it to the light of the late morning sun, and pronounced, “Arms of the State, Tander and Yasule, your presence is commanded by the Baron Tavinstromcask this noon and no later. Do you understand what I’ve told you?” He looked down his nose at them. They stared back and nodded. “Very well; good day,” he said. Quickly rolling up the scroll and tucking it under an arm, the messenger spun on his heels and left in the direction he came. The other Arms had already resumed their idle chatter, and the hall forgot the appearance.
Brawtin leaned back and picked at his teeth. “No later than noon he says? To the center of the city?” He let out a sigh of disgust. “We need to find some wolfish Arms to take our spots, Wes. I’m sure we could find some thirsty kippers willing to take our rotation. Just look at Kepler and Gideon. Those two morons have been drafting their own ale; they’re so bored. Let’s give up the spotlight for a little while.”
Wesley looked at Brawtin levelly, “And then do what?”
Brawtin frowned. “Then what? We live, Wes. These two-week rotations are killing me. We’re not old, but we’re not getting younger, if you know what I mean.” He raised his cup of ale to Wesley, downed it in two gulps and slammed it down on the table. Froth dripped from his unkempt beard. He rubbed his stomach, the other hand stroking against his square jaw.
“So, then? What do you say?”
“Let’s just hear what the Baron has to say.”
“We can talk it over on the ride.” Wesley stood from the bench, and Brawtin pursed his lips and followed.
Three sections divided the city, one large square surrounding the next: the lower quarters around the middle quarters and the city keep in the center. They climbed into an inbound city wagon that passed the Arms’ headquarters at the southern intersection of the lower and middle quarters.
On board, scraggly passengers from the lower quarters crowded together. Oozing sores covered their faces and limbs, and they could have been heading to the doctor, or maybe the morgue—in which case, they were headed the wrong direction. The government tried its best to keep death outside the city walls, but the Ash Wars had brought sickness and swarms of refugees. Despite the end of the wars, both remained rooted in the lower quarters.
Every person on the wagon, except the Arms, was coughing. A young woman next to Brawtin coughed into her threadbare mittens. He groaned and shifted away from her. “We couldn’t have ridden our own horses?”
“Get to the stables and make it to the keep before noon? I’d like to see you try.”
At the rim of the middle quarters, sewer outfalls gushed their contents, fetid runoff coursing down the cobbled streets, sometimes overflowing onto the wagon tracks. As they drove deeper into the city, the tracks cleared. The wagon sped inward.
“So, what I talked about earlier…” Brawtin said.
“I thought about it,” Wesley said.
“And?” Brawtin raised an eyebrow.
“So if you won’t take reduced rotations for your own sake, what about Danai’s? When was the last time you saw your girl, Wes?”
“We need money to live, which means I need to work. I couldn’t really think of anything past that. You?”
The inner keep was the last sanctum for nobility in the city. A few privileged nobles resided by the wall and their servants attended the keep’s outer landscape. Short, manicured hedges surrounded gardens of roses and orchids. Wesley deflated at the sight of the beautiful flowers. Every spot of land should be dedicated to food when people in the lower quarters were starving. The glistening petals, in their colorful splendor, served as a noble slap in the face. Their wagon empty, they passed under the raised portcullises in the gatehouse, guards eyeing them as they disembarked in the bailey. The portcullises slammed down behind them.
Archers with nocked arrows stared down from the wall. Stable boys rushed forward to check the horses. Two guards inspected the wagon for several minutes.
One approached the Arms. “Weapons?”
Wesley and Brawtin showed they had none.
“Not much of a welcome,” Brawtin said.
“I wasn’t expecting one,” Wesley said.
“Only if we screw it up.”
They followed the boy into the Baron’s hall until he turned and flashed his hands for them to stop. He stepped toward the Baron’s dais and said in a high voice, “Arm Tander and Arm Yasule stand before the benevolent Overlord of Strath, The Golden Gryphon, Baron Tavinstromcask.” The boy scurried away.
Wesley and Brawtin knelt and looked at the floor, each planting a bare fist and palm against the floor, at the steps of the Baron’s dais. Plush red runners swept from every direction like rays from the sun. Drapes hung from the double hammerbeam rafters, embroidered with the Baron’s symbol of a gryphon. Empty pews faced the end of the hall, hemmed in by tables similarly empty.
Guards stood at attention on every runner, placing themselves between the pews and the dais. The Baron sat with his legs crossed. Neither touched the floor, one foot bobbing, and the other tapping against one of the legs of the wood throne. His hands fidgeted on his lap. Frayed, greasy, and long brown hair fell down his aquiline face. He stared down his large nose at them and flicked his hair to the side. He looked more like a resident of the lower quarters garbed in ridiculous finery rather than the Baron of Strath. Not that he was much of a politician. Wesley wondered if the Baron had ever done more than inherit a marginalized throne.
“Can you two tell me why you allowed the Twins to live?” The Baron’s voice was deeper than Wesley imagined, which wasn’t much.
Neither Wesley nor Brawtin spoke. This must be Brawtin’s way of getting back at me, Wesley thought.
“We didn’t deem the Twins to be a viable threat. Sir.”
“I see, and which Arm said that? Please stand.” They stood. “Much better. Regarding the Twins, of course they weren’t threats to two Arms. Especially a pair as well-reputed as yourselves.” The Baron spoke while twirling a single finger in the air as if a large ring spun on it.
“Your instructions for that mission were to eliminate the Twins, not to bring them back to prison. We don’t need more prisoners, as—I’m sure you are aware—they simply return to their criminal ways in less time than it takes for me to order a feast.” He sniffed. “Which is fast.”
“But the point is that you went against your orders and preserved the lives of these miserable cretins. Why?”
“We take pride in our ability to stop murders, not commit them.” Please, don’t be the wrong answer, Wesley thought.
“I see,” the Baron said, “and you carried your mission on during the night, with limited information, and decidedly non-lethal force.”
“Yes, sir. We felt that we could handle the mission, despite the circumstances. There was no need to leave the mission for others.”
“Would you have killed them if they were viable threats?”
“If Arm Yasule or my life was in danger, the mission takes precedence.”
“A diplomatic answer, Arm Tander, and a good one. I trust you’ll stick to this principle for your next assignment. I understand that you two are the best pairing that Mind Sarvant has seen since before the Ash Wars. He talked at length about my father’s era. I got bored, but he said you two were good and that’s what I need.” He paused.
“Anything for—” Wesley began.
“I wasn’t finished.” Wesley felt himself redden. Brawtin was going to have a ball with this one.
“My father’s Ash Wars are over, thank God, but there are still problems with my state. I need it in order. Do you understand?”
“Good, you learn fast. Mind Sarvant hasn’t lost his edge yet, it would seem. Here’s the problem: towns are burning. Just yesterday, we received a hawk messenger from the Caroq Outpost near Fandlo. They were attacked, everything burned to the ground. The State Army regiment didn’t get there in time. They found no survivors. As far as we can tell, it was no act of war from Proxelos. I cannot have this nonsense happening in my state.” His voice rose. “Do you hear me?”
“Several regiments of State soldiers deserted during the war. If it’s them, I want to know. The Liege believes remnant mages from the Ash Wars are responsible. It may be them; it may be them and the deserters. I don’t care who it is. Find those responsible, and if you can eliminate them. I don’t care for you to consider their viability as threats. Needless to say, be wary of whom you reveal your mission. The treachery may run deeper than mages and deserters.”
“But no matter who they are, they have murdered citizens of Strath. I will have order in my land.” The Baron breathed heavily, as if he had never expended that much breath or emotion before. Wesley certainly had not expected this. Rumors always spoke of how the Baron was aloof and uncaring for his subjects, but here, he sounded angry and authoritative.
“Without repercussions, this will happen again. You will not let that be. Find the reason and end it. Those are my orders.”
“I don’t like it,” Brawtin said.
“We don’t get much of a say.”
They sat on another empty wagon, heading back into the middle quarters. The wheels rolled smoothly down the slotted tracks. It was a few hours before dusk and well-dressed pedestrians strolled past one another on the sides of the street. Merchants, with their wares stacked and lined along the road, discussed prices with basket-laden shoppers. Silver coins passed between hands.
“We’ve never left the city, Wes. It’s not our area of expertise that the Baron is throwing us into.”
“It’s not? Seems like it is. We’re trackers. He needs us to find people.”
“Or not people. Mages, Wes. Might be we could have tracked them in Irisoth, but it’s different out there, and don’t act like it isn’t. It may be less violent than when our dads were Arms, but that doesn’t make it any better. And the world isn’t all made of people you can track.”
“I’m not worried about that right now. I need what the Baron’ll pay us.”
“And you don’t need to go dying on Danai, either.”
“What are you trying to get at, Brawtin? We can’t refuse this mission.”
“We can if we aren’t fit for it.”
“But we are, and none of the others can do it. Sarvant chose us. We owe it to him.”
Brawtin scowled. “You got a funny sense of debt, Wes.”
When they neared the lower quarters and the faint scent of putrid sewage, the wagon stopped. Brawtin got off. “See you in the morning,” he said.
The wagon continued pass the middle walls and into the lower quarters. It stopped a hundred yards from the city’s final walls, grimy and soot-stained, towering over the refugee campfires. Wesley looked back up the wagon tracks, at the walls of the middle quarters and the keep, tall on its motte, above it.
“You getting out, Tander?” the old driver called.
“Sharp as always, Bill. Take care of yourself. I won’t be around much starting tomorrow.”
“Sure, see you when I see you. Look after your own self, kid.”
Wesley hopped over the rails. Bill waved a hand overhead without looking, and the wagon—filled again with coughing passengers—sputtered for the refugee camps. The markets in the lower quarters, often resembling muddy hamlets, were crowded with refugees searching for a free morsel or a place to sleep. It hummed with conversation, bickering, and hawking. One false step could land you in a makeshift tent and its perturbed occupant. Wesley stopped at a shack, with broken boards and a ripped canvas covering, and picked up some bruised vegetables. He fished bronze coins from his meager pouch and handed them to the expectant vendor.
He was walking home when a woman yelled, “Wesley, hey, get over here!”
Wesley spotted Emma beside her butcher cart and enormous bull of a husband.
As he reached them, Emma threw a wrapped slab of meat at him. He caught it and looked up in surprise. “Emma, I can’t pay for this. Not even half of it.”
She glanced at his vegetables. “You’re feeding Danai those things? Take some meat, Wesley. You’ve more than helped us before.” Her husband turned for a moment to give a quick nod and grin.
“I can’t take this from you, Emma. You’ve got children, too.”
“And they get meat, Wesley. Give it all to Danai if you want, though even you’re looking leaner than usual.”
Wesley smiled. “You don’t like them lean anyway.”
“Off with you and trim that thin beard. It may as well match your hair. Go on; keep the meat. I won’t take no or money for an answer, but say hello to Danai and ma’am Tander for me.”
“Of course.” He waved goodbye, and Emma turned to shooing off beggar refugees and gathering customers with money.
Wesley climbed the creaking stairs to the landing of his flat. Damp spots stained the walls and dark curves in the ceiling sagged. Oily layers of dirt coated the banisters. Wesley avoided them. When he opened his flat’s door, a child’s scream shook the walls. He quickly—and gently—placed his groceries in a basket by the inside of the door and lowered himself, hands ready. Danai, with her bedtime clothes and huge tangle of black hair, rushed out of the back room and into his arms. Wesley took her up and swung her in the air and into a tight hug.
“Dad, you’re squeezing too hard,” she squeaked between laughs.
“You’re going to get the neighbors upset at me again with a scream like that,” he laughed. “How’s my girl? You behaved for Grandma today, right?” He set her down, and she saluted him sharply.
“Yes, sir!” She marched off, picked up the food, and hurried into the kitchen. “Yum! Meat!”
Miranda, with her cane and old magenta robe, came from the same back room. Her gray hairs looked grayer and her easy smile broke along the familiar wrinkles of her face.
“Somehow getting meat? You’re a magician, Wesley.”
Wesley laughed. “‘That’s about all magic is good for,’ Dad would have said.”
“Though if there were still mages in the city, maybe then people wouldn’t be starving.”
“Nonsense,” Miranda said. “Mages never did a good thing, and your father and his men fought for the right reason. You should know better. Come on, let’s make some dinner.”
As they ate, Wesley said, “Mom, I got assigned to a long tracking mission. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but the money will be good. Sarvant will send it over to you while I’m gone.”
Miranda put down her spoon and clasped her knobby hands. “Wesley, what have I told you? It’s not about the money. You have got to make sure you can be here for Danai. She needs you more than a gob of money. Leaving won’t help, and money isn’t a good father. Your own father never learned that.”
“Dad, you’re leaving?” Danai said.
“Not for long, sweetheart. Mom, I’d rather we all get out of here. It’s worth the risk.”
“To where? The middle quarters?”
“No, somewhere else. I don’t know. Another town, Thysdeel, maybe.”
Miranda didn’t say a word, nodded, and looked at her food.
“I’ll see what it’s like out there, whether it’s safe or not, and we can finally live somewhere in peace. We could grow our own food instead of…” He pushed at their thin stew with his spoon.
“You’re going to go no matter what I say?” Miranda said.
“You had better know if you’re going to leave your young daughter here with her aging grandmother. She can’t go and lose both parents. You’re the last person I should need to remind.”
Wesley sighed and rubbed his eyes. They felt swollen, irritated, and tired. “Let’s not get into that. Please.” He stood and gave his bowl to Danai. “Here you go, sweetheart. Dad’s not hungry anymore. Eat it all, I know you like Grandma’s stew. After that, it’s time for bed.”
“Thanks, Dad! Grandma, I love your stew.”
Miranda smiled wistfully as Wesley left into the backroom. In the dark, he lay on his sleeping mat, listening to the squeals of Danai, the bickering flats below and above, and the skittering mice inside the walls. How often did the cat wind up with the mice?
Outside the city, Brawtin met Wesley at the stables in the morning. They shared a knowing glance.
“How’d Mama Tander take it?” Brawtin said.
“About as well as I bet Helen took it,” Wesley said.
“You got that right. I’m hoping we can wrap this whole mess up quick, Wes.”
They rubbed the horses and prepared the saddles and gear. Brawtin nudged Wesley and nodded toward the gates, where a pair of men separated from the stream of traffic and headed in their direction.
“Can you tell who they are?” Wesley said, squinting.
“Looks like Gill and Pommel,” Brawtin said. “You think they’re coming with us?”
“That doesn’t make much sense. They’re terrible trackers.”
“Serviceable. You think everyone is a terrible tracker compared to you.”
Wesley smiled. Tracking was the only gift and remembrance from his father.
Arms Gyller and Pommenisk were one of the stranger couplings. Most Arm pairs were similar in everything except for skills, when opposites complemented one another. In looks, however, Gyller was average sized, with a flat face and nose, hairy hands, and a black braided beard that extended to his round stomach, while Pommenisk was near a foot taller than Gyller, even with his slouch. Pommenisk’s stubble chin, baggy eyes, heavy brow and pockmarked cheeks gave him a haggard face. They both wore the standard brown leathers of the Arms, with the Arm crest: a red fist over a white hand. It reminded Wesley of the sun burning through a drifting cloud.
Arm Gyller waved a hand in greeting. “You two get the same orders from the Baron?” Arm Pommenisk stood stiffly with his arms crossed.
“I guess so,” Brawtin said. “Depends what yours are.”
“Fair enough,” Gyller said.
They continued talking, but Wesley stopped listening. Among the Arms, there were good pairs and bad pairs. Gyller and Pommenisk, while capable enough to have passed the entry and subsequent qualification tests, were notoriously bad. It hardly made any sense for their pairs to be joined on the same mission. Unless they didn’t have the same orders.
“Wes? Wes, you ready to go or what?” Brawtin was peering down at Wesley from his horse. Gyller and Pommenisk were horseback as well.
Wesley blinked a few times. “Sorry, let’s go.”
As they rode from the city’s walls, with Gyller and Pommenisk ahead, Wesley sidled closer to Brawtin. “Did you find out their orders?”
“Gill was about as secretive as I was. Pommel didn’t say a word.”
“They must have different orders than us.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense, Wes. The only reason for them to be tagging along is because they have…”
“Right. It’s going to be an interesting trip to Fandlo.”